When people mention William Friedkin, it is likely that only a few will know who he is. Add the film ‘The Exorcist’ into the conversation and then you’ll get their attention. Even though his directorial filmography has spanned 45 years, Friedkin’s recent work such as Bug (2006), Rules of Engagement (2000) and Jade (1995) have really reached the critical success of The Exorcist and his 1971 Academy-Award winning thriller The French Connection. Until now.
Killer Joe is based on a play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), which sees small-time drug dealer Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), along with his pushover father Ansell (Thomas Haden Church), plan to murder his mother to claim her life insurance of $50,000. Chris hires Dallas cop/occasional contract killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do the deed, who requests payment of $25,000 upfront. When this isn’t possible, Cooper requests a ‘retainer’ until he is paid in cash: Chris’s younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple).
At first, Killer Joe seems like your typical murder-for-money thriller. But instead, the titular character is quietly cold and sexually aggressive. The guy you are supposing to be rooting for i.e. Chris is a deadbeat loser. Chris’s stepmother Sharla (the domineering Gina Gershon) can’t keep her panties on and his dad Ansell is a bit of a wimp. Even the angelic Dottie gives in to Joe’s almost-sleazy attentions without argument. Not the kind of characters you can really identify with, or wish to endure, as their respective negatives in terms of personality and motivations easily outweigh the positives.
Lett’s source material highlights the cracks in the dysfunctional Smith family and watching Joe manipulate them so easily to his terms is uncomfortable at times, with the last half an hour bringing out the odd squirm or two.
After seeing him on screen for so long in less-than-critically-successful features such as Sahara and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, it is strange to see Matthew McConaughey in a non-romantic/comedic/action role – it is the first time that many viewers get to see him tackle a serious role and he is brilliant as ‘Killer’ Joe Cooper. Calm, collected and mainly stony-faced, his cold demeanour reflects Ryan Gosling in Drive, only with a cowboy hat and aviators instead of a scorpion jacket.
Hirsch puts in a determined performance as Chris; flawed he may be, his intentions to protect the only good thing in his life – Dottie – from Joe highlights the desperation in his character. Temple is fantastic as Dottie – she may come off as sweet and innocent, but instead presents a bare fragility that resonates with you and the rest of the characters. Haden Church and Gershon are resigned to the sidelines but hold the lighter moments in the film – such as Sharla’s memorable entrance and the couple dealing with a loose thread on a suit jacket.
Director Friedkin emphasises the trash in ‘trailer trash’ while lacing with sex, drugs and dark, though occasional, bouts of humour though the comedic elements cannot lighten the mood of this altogether twisted thriller. One thing to take away from this is a sudden aversion to KFC – just don’t ask.
Killer Joe is tense, character-driven and McConaughey gives the performance of his career. Immensely enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.